On Sunday, 20 March, voters in five African countries cast their ballots, including four presidential elections and a constitutional referendum. Incumbents in Niger and Republic of Congo are expected to sail to re-election, while Benin’s presidential election run-off vote is less certain.
Below is a look at the contests:
Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi is stepping down after the maximum of two terms in office, effectively enhancing the West African country’s democratic credentials. Sunday’s election was between the current Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou and businessman Patrice Talon, who was once accused of trying to poison the outgoing president, an allegation he denies. Prime Minister Zinsou, who quit his job as the head of one of Europe’s biggest investment banks when he was nominated prime minister last year, is the leading contender. The 61-year-old candidate for Boni Yayi’s Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) has the support of the majority of lawmakers in parliament via the backing of two main opposition groups. During the first round of voting, on 6 March, Zinsou won 27.1 percent of the vote, with Talon, a 57-year-old entrepreneur who made his money in cotton and running Cotonou’s port, coming in second with 23.5 percent. However since then, 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round of the election have come out in support of Talon, including third-placed Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22 percent of votes.
Polls opened at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with 4.7 million people eligible to cast their ballots. Voting was to close at 4:00 PM (1500 GMT). Voting on Sunday passed off calmly, with no major incidents reported.
On Monday, 21 March, Benin Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou conceded defeat to businessman Patrice Talon in the presidential elections. He conceded after early results overnight indicated that Talon won 64.8 percent of the vote, against 35.2 for Zinsou.
- Youth Unemployment – The 15 – 34 age group makes up some 60 percent of the country’s working population. Officially, the unemployment rate is under 4.0 percent, however with 85 percent of works in the informal sector of the jobs market, the figure does not reflect reality. With few jobs available, many university graduates end up driving motorbike-taxis that are increasingly found everywhere in the West African country. Zinsou has promised to create 350,000 jobs by 2021, especially for the young and women, while Talon has pledged to take steps in order to encourage job creation in the private sector.
- Corruption – When President Boni Yayi first took office in 2006, he had vowed to stop endemic corruption in several key sectors, including in the port in Benin’s commercial hub, Cotonou, and the cotton industry. However his two terms in office have been marked by several embezzlement and bribery scandals. In 2010, the head of state ws implicated in a major savings scandal in which thousands of Beninese lost money. The construction of a new national assembly building in the administrative capital Port Novo has also taken millions of dollars however it has never been finished. Furthermore, last year, the Netherlands suspended aid to Benin after four million euros, which were earmarked for drinking water schemes, disappeared.
- Health and Education – Benin, which has a population of 10.6 million, is considered by the World Bank to be a low-income country with poor ratings in both the health and education indicators. Free primary school education has been seen as a positive from Boni Yayi’s presidency, even if subsidies do not always reach schools. Furthermore, President Boni Yayi also created a universal scheme to open up access to healthcare to the poorest in society via an average monthly subscription of 1,000 CFA francs (1.5 euros). The scheme however is not yet up and running. Prime Minister Zinsou has promised that he will make development a key priority, including helping the 100,000 poorest families and improving medical infrastructure.
- Major Port in Benin – The port accounts for almost half of the country’s tax receipts and more than 80 percent of customs tariffs. It handles some 90 percent of the country’s overseas businesses and sells itself as a transit port for neighbouring Nigeria to the east and surrounding countries, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. Major infrastructure work has been carried out, including the construction of a new quay, which allows it to handle twice as many containers in 2014 as it did in 2008. A computerized management system of truck arrivals and departures has also been put in place as well as a single counter to handle all transactions, effectively helping to streamline procedures and cut graft. However waiting times remain long due to a lack of available space and the new checks. Accoridng to sources, ships often wait up to a week before offloading, with some opting to go to Lome in neighbouring Togo, brining in the containers by lorry, which is quicker. The port of Tema, in Ghana, is also a main competitor for business.
The election in Niger effectively pits incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou against opposition figure Hama Amadou, who has been in prison since November 2015 on charges, which critics say are politically motivated. President Issoufou is campaigning on his credentials in the fight against Islamic militancy. His opponent left the country late last week to seek medical treatment in France for an unspecified ailment.
Voting on Sunday ended in Niger with President Mahamadou Issoufou the likely winner of the election. Throughout the day, security forces were posted at polling stations. They also patrolled the streets of Niamey and monitored the city’s main intersection. As polling stations closed in the early evening and elections workers began counting ballots, observers disclosed that there were no major incidents that had been reported, adding that voter turnout had been low. Provisional results are due to be released in the next few days.
Republic of Congo
President Denis Sassou N’Guesso, 72, who has been in power for more than 30 years, is seeking another term in office after he organized a constitutional referendum that effectively removed the an age limit that would have disqualified him from running again. The run-up to the October referendum was marred by violence, and mobile phone service was blocked in the country.
On 19 March, authorities in Republic of Congo announced a 48-hour communications blackout for Sunday’s presidential election. On Saturday, a government source disclosed that all communications would be cut on Sunday and Monday, by order of the authorities in order to avoid “illegal publication” of the results. A letter from interior minister Raymond Mboulou to the country’s phone companies disclosed that “for reasons of national security, please block all communications including SMSs from March 20 and 21.” The government source added that the move would not affect the voting process and would “in no way hinder the opposition’s access to the results.”
On Sunday, voting began under a media blackout, in a tense ballot that is expected to see President Denis Sassou Nguesso prolong his 32-year rule. Polling stations opened promptly at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with on the ground sources reporting that voters lined up quietly outside in the capital Brazzaville. The polls closed at 6:00 PM (1700 GMT). Tensions later broke out with riot police using tear gas to disperse 200 opposition supporters who were trying to get into a polling station. According to on the ground sources, dozens of heavily armed police fired tear gas at the supporters of opposition candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas and chased them away from the polling station in the south of the capital Brazzaville.
Senegal is voting on a constitutional referendum, which proposes fifteen reforms that would make sweeping changes. In contrast with many African leaders, Senegalese President Macky Sall is asking voters to shorten the country’s presidential term from seven years to five. The proposed changes also call for a strengthened National Assembly, better representation for Senegalese abroad, and greater rights for the opposition in national elections.
Voting began on Sunday at 0800 GMT and ended at 1800 GMT, with up to five million Senegalese voting in the election. Technical problems with producing voter ID cards however will prevent 200,000 from exercising their democratic rights. According to Doudou Ndir, the head of the country’s election watchdog, turnout was slow early on, with only 10 percent of votes cast by 11 AM. Activity however was likely to pick up in the afternoon. The results are no expected to be released until later this week.
Voters are casing ballots in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. The opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election. Zanzibar’s vote is a re-run of an October ballot, which the main opposition parties say runs counter to Zanzibar’s electoral laws.
On Sunday, voting began with tight security. Polling stations opened on time at 7:00 AM (0400 GMT), with votes lining up peacefully. Turnout however was expected to be low in opposition strongholds after the Civic United Front (CUF) urged its supporters not to participate. The Zanzibar Election Commission (ZEC) indicated that there had been no delays in the delivery of ballot boxes and papers and said both local and African observers were in place, although those from the EU had stayed away. Polls closed at 4:00 PM (1300 GMT) with results expected as early as Monday.
On Tuesday 8 March, Niger’s opposition coalition disclosed that its jailed candidate Hama Amadou will boycott the run-off race against incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou.
In a dramatic announcement on Tuesday, the opposition’s Seini Oumarou disclosed that “the political opposition untied by COPA 2016 has decided to withdraw from the electoral process under way (and) demand that its representatives withdraw from (national electoral commission) CENI.” Oumarou further complained of “unfair treatment between the two candidates.” He also stated that “there has been no official announcement by the Constitutional Court of the final results of the first round,” adding that the duration of the second-round campaign has been cut from 21 to 10 days in violation of the constitution. The announcement comes as the government has insisted that it will press ahead with the ballot, which is expected to hand the incumbent a second term in office.
During the first round of voting on 21 February, Issoufou, 64, won 48.43 percent of the vote, while his nearest challenger, Amadou, who has been in prison since November 2015 on shadowy baby-trafficking charges that he maintains were concocted, took 17.73 percent. Amadou was forced to campaign from behind bars during the first round and the Court of Cassation must rule on whether to go ahead with his trial, which is due to occur on 23 March, three days after the run-off ballot in the country. The opposition coalition COPA 2016 has accused the government of fraud in the first round, and the official final results of the election have not been announced. A cabinet statement, which was read on state television late on Monday, indicated that the Constitutional Court was holding back the definitive first-round results. The government maintains that the election was “free and transparent,” while the African Union (AU), which sent observers, disclosed that it was generally satisfied with the organization of the vote, despite logistical glitches and delays. While there has so far been no comment from the electoral commission, the government has insisted that the second round would go ahead despite the opposition’s withdrawal. The second-round of voting is due to take place on 20 March.
According to provisional results that were released on Friday 26 February, incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou fell short of an outright majority in the 21 February election, effectively meaning that he now faces a run-off against jailed opposition leader Hama Amadou. Issoufou will bid for a second term on 20 March.
His opponent, a former prime minister, came in second with 17.8 percent compared to Issoufou’s 48.4 percent. The National Electoral Commission has disclosed that turnout was nearly 67 percent. Amadou has been in prison since November 2015 on charges relating to baby-trafficking. He has maintained that he is innocent and a victim of political repression. Critics have reported that Amadou’s imprisonment is part of a crackdown by the Nigerien government over the election season. The government however has stated that it respects the law and that such criticisms are politically motivated.
Following the announcement of the election results, Issoufou congratulated the people of Niger for the peaceful election. Speaking to journalists, he stated, “I also salute my adversaries in the first round and congratulate them for the quality of the debate.”
A coalition of four parties agreed before the election to back the candidate that came second in a bid to defeat Issoufou. Those parties gained a cumulative vote of about 38 percent, through it was unclear which side had an advantage ahead of the second round or how Amadou would campaign from prison.
On Tuesday, 23 February, opposition parties in Niger rejected initial results from the country’s presidential election, held on 21 February, which showed incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou in the lead. The opposition has called the results fraudulent.
Provisional results released from twenty of the country’s 308 municipalities indicate that Issoufou has so far garnered 40.18 percent of the vote, more than 10 percentage points ahead of his closest rival. Despite claims by the authorities that the vote met “international standards,” Amadou Boubacar Cisse, an election candidate and spokesman for the Coalition for Change group of opposition parties has stated “these results are completely contrary to what was expressed at the ballot box.” The opposition has also accused the Nigerien government of voter intimidation and warned of false results.
On 21 February, Niger closed its land borders and increased security for the election, with on the ground sources reporting that security forces patrolled the cities and villages in case of unrest or militant attacks. Some voters disclosed Sunday that they had never experienced such a tense election. While there were few reports of trouble, security sources did indicate that unidentified armed men attacked two electoral commission vehicles in a rural area about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of the capital city.
Voting on Sunday ended at 7 PM (1800 GMT) after a day of steady turnout, with those voters still queuing allowed to cast their ballots after that time. Voting in the country’s presidential and legislative elections was extended for a second day on Monday, 22 February, in areas where logistical problems prevented the polls from taking place the previous day. Polls on Monday were open in four of the eight regions: the northeastern Tahoua region, and Zinder, Diffa and Tillaberi, in the east, southwest and west respectively. A total of 7.5 million people were eligible to vote across the country. Late on Monday, the heads of observation missions, including the African Union (AU) reported that the 21 February elections took place “in a calm and serene environment.”
In the months leading up to the Niger’s presidential and legislative elections, the climate across the country has been made tense by Islamic extremist and complaints about a crackdown on dissent. For more than a year, the southeastern region of Niger has been targeted by cross-border raids carried out by Nigerian-based extremist group Boko Haram. The attacks and heightened threat have prompted officials to impose a state of emergency in the affected region. Recent high-profile attack carried out by al-Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM, in the capital of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have further raised fears that the Nigerien capital, Niamey, could be a target.
Further adding to the tensions is that government critics have accused the president of silencing opponents in a bid to stay in office. Critics point to a recent number of arrests of opposition politicians, journalists and a singer who released a song that was critical of incumbent president Issoufou.
On Tuesday, Niger declared a 15-day state of emergency in the border region of Diffa after several attacks carried out by Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram.
The declaration of a state of emergency effectively provides troops operating in the region new powers to search homes without a warrant and to impose a curfew. In the wake of Boko Haram attacks on the border town of Diffa over the weekend, officials have also imposed an overnight curfew and have banned the use of motorcycles, a common mode of transport, in order to prevent infiltration by Boko Haram militants. The curfew will force residents to stay indoors between 20:00 and 06:00 local time (19:00 and 05:00 GMT). On the grounds sources have reported that thousands of residents are fleeing the town of Diffa over fears that the militants will launch further attacks. Some have travelled 500 km (310 miles) to Zinder city, with one eyewitness reporting that about 200 refugees arrived in Zinder on Tuesday in a single convoy. The nearby border town of Bosso was attacked on Friday.
In recent weeks, Boko Haram has intensified its campaign against neighbouring states, carrying out attacks and kidnappings in Cameroon. On Monday, suspected Boko Haram militants hijacked a bus in northern Cameroon, abducting at least 20 people. On the ground sources reported that the militants reportedly seized a bus carrying market-goers and drove it towards the border with Nigeria. The bus was seized near the border area of Koza and driven towards the Nigerian border, 18 kilometres (11 miles) away.
During the early morning hours Wednesday, Boko Haram militants attacked Chadian troops stationed in a Nigerian border town. According to a Chadian military source, “the Boko Haram elements wanted to surprise us by attacking at about 4 am (0300 GMT). We were aware about it from the day before and were prepared.” The attack occurred in the town of Gamboru, which is located on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, where Chadian troops, who are deployed to help in the complex regional battle against Boko Haram, have taken up positions. According to the source, Boko Haram militants “…arrived with 14 vehicles and two armoured vehicles. We repulsed them and they retreated,” adding “a helicopter was brought in to join the pursuit and destroy them.”
Last week, Nigeria and its neighbours, Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, agreed to launch a 8,750 regional force, composed of troops, police and civilians, for a wider African Union-backed force against Boko Haram. On Monday, Niger’s parliament voted to deploy troops to Nigeria to join the fight against Boko Haram. MP’s have authorized the deployment of 750 soldiers with a regional force that is battling the militant group. On going Boko Haram attacks and the region’s military operations to gain back occupied territory have forced Nigeria to postpone its presidential and parliamentary elections from 14 February to 28 march.